There is a particular word in Chinese my mother used to describe my personality: li hai. Depending on context and how forcefully it is said, it can mean “fierce” or “formidable” in doing what is right, or it can mean “unrelenting,” “persistent” or “unstoppable” in doing what is wrong. As a kid, I was often called li hai. One time it concerned a Halloween costume. I wanted to wear my mother’s red charmeuse wedding skirt, which was embroidered with hundreds of tiny flowers. She thought I should wear her white starched nurse’s cap, a clever detail, she thought, that would provide the verisimilitude of a tulip-gathering Dutch girl. I said everyone would think I was a nurse because I did not have wooden Dutch shoes. She said I would get the wedding skirt dirty. I cried and said everyone would laugh at me. She told me I was li hai for arguing about this. I cried even more to prove how li hai I really was, and she shouted that my crying meant I would have no costume, no trick or treat. That year, I marched around the schoolyard in the costume parade wearing the cap of a Dutch girl — a hat that had been made out of a white napkin. At night, I went trick-or-treating in the Chinese wedding skirt, and with my mother by my side to make sure I did not drag it on the ground. So that was a time when we were both li hai.
From “Where the Past Begins.” ©2017 by Amy Tan. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.